The air search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet has been called off but the underwater search will be expanded.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared a new phase in the search for MH370, saying it is now “highly unlikely” any wreckage will be found on the ocean’s surface.
“By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become waterlogged and sunk,” he told reporters in Canberra on Monday.
The air search will end but a P-3 Orion patrol aircraft will remain on standby.
Authorities will instead focus all their efforts on the underwater search of the probable impact zone – an area of about 700km by 80km of the remote Indian Ocean.
Most of the ocean in the area is between 4000 and 4500 metres deep.
“We will search it all,” Mr Abbott said.
“While the search will be moving to a new phase in coming weeks it certainly is not ending.”
New specialised sidescan sonar equipment will be used to scour the seabed. The Bluefin-21 unmanned submersible will also continue its search.
The government will engage one or more commercial companies to undertake the search because some of the best expertise is in the private sector, Mr Abbott said.
That would cost an estimated $60 million and Australia would seek contributions from other nations.
It will take some weeks to put the new contract arrangements in place. In the meantime, vessels from Australia, Malaysia and China will continue operations.
Former defence force chief and search coordinator Angus Houston says the new phase could take up to eight months.
“We haven’t given up hope yet,” he said.
Mr Abbott conceded it was possible authorities may never find the plane, but that would be a “terrible” outcome.
“I want the families to know, I want the world to know, that Australia will not shirk its responsibilities in this area,” he said.
“We will do everything we humanly can, everything we reasonably can, to solve this mystery.”
By Adam Gartrell, AAP